Make Spoons Not War!

Trip Start Jul 16, 2012
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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

So the minibus ride to Phonsavan…. This was like something you might see on Discovery Channels Deadliest Roads! The bus was on the top of a mountain ridge and we basically twisted and turned our way along the ridge for the entire 6 and a half hours.  I know we were on a mountain ridge but the amount of switchbacks was astounding, we didn't drive in a straight line for more than 2 minutes at a time for the entire journey my stomach muscles received the best work out from just being thrown around the minibus.  I later learnt that we had made the right decision taking the mini bus for this journey as the locals usually end up throwing up, nice.  Not only did we have continuous switchbacks to contend with, there were huge boulders at the side of the road, in the middle of the road and generally on their way down the mountain into the road.  In the villages there were cows, chickens, dogs, children and buffalo all just sleeping or meandering in the roads.  Needless to say this was not a relaxing journey, but the views were pretty special.

When we finally arrived in Phonsavan before the driver had even turned off the engine the mini bus was surrounded at every exit by men with clipboards trying to take you to a hotel so that they could get a commission, having already booked our hotel we just waved them off but they were pretty insistent and one told us that he would take us to our hotel for free, what the hell let’s do it.

It turns out the free ride meant we had to listen to the guy try to sell us a tour to the Plain of Jars and given that that is exactly what we were looking for, we weighed up the options and decided that whilst we might be able to save a couple of pound by trawling the street for a travel agent we may as well just go with it.

We went out to explore and discovered that Phonsavan is pretty much a one road town, with not much on it.  A few restaurants, bars and hotels and a local market were pretty much all there was to see.  The local market was as rustic and old school as a market gets, with chickens and pigs for sale alongside the fresh fruit, vegetables and pots of strange chilli and fish concoctions.

We did also visit the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) who are a non-profit organisation who aim to save lives and build futures by working with others to, Reclaim land contaminated with the remnants of conflict, Find ways to reduce the daily risk of death or injury for civilians and Create safe and secure conditions for development, free from armed violence.  Laos was bombed for a total of 9 years in the North and South.  During those nine years a bomb was dropped every 8 minutes 24 hours a day.  Around 30% of the ordinances did not explode and remain active hidden in the land today.  MAG really do change the lives of the locals by clearing their land and giving them the ability to earn a living without the fear of UXO’s.  Thankfully MAG have begun work to clear the Plain of Jars sites so that we are able to visit this amazing wonder, at the moment there are just 3 sites that have been cleared but there are another 87 sites in the area.

So the next morning we awaited our minibus for our tour and it seems that we actually did pretty well by booking with our little man and we had a totally private tour, just us and our driver.  Our first stop was the tourist information office where I assume our driver had to go to register us(presumably because of the possibility of being blown up by a UXO)?!  We had fun taking photos of all the random bombs and UXO’s around the office.

On the road again, well strictly speaking a mud road we set off towards the Plain of Jars site, we did them in reverse as site 3 is furthest away and worked our way back to the site one which is closer to Phonsavan.  When we arrived at Site 3 our driver pointed us over a strange looking bridge which looked like it went nowhere… we set off and found ourselves in the middle of a dried up rice paddy with some concrete square markers on either side, we soon worked out that these were the markers placed by MAG.   When they cleared the UXO’s from the Plain of Jars sites these markers were placed to keep you to the safe and cleared path.  Winding our way through the rice paddies we eventually asked a lady working in her garden whether we were going the right way and she pointed the way were headed so we carried on.  About 10 minutes and 3 ladders over fences later we finally saw the Jars on the horizon.  The jars are literally big stone pots just scattered around the place, some are six feet tall, some are two feet tall, some are upright, some on their sides and some broken from bombings but the strangest thing about the jars is that no-one really knows how long they have been there, why they are there or what they were for.  It is assumed that they are burial pots but there is no real evidence.  I like to think that someone just though it would be a laugh to leave them there for idiots like us to spend 6 and a half hours on a bus to go and visit them. 

The area around Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars was so heavily bombed they locals make as much use of the bomb remnants as they can, we particularly liked the Bomb House where the stilts of the house where bombs cut in half.

Another enterprise is to melt down the bomb remnants and to make spoons and bracelets.  We visited a Spoon Village where we were shown the moulds for the spoons and the furnace in the back garden.  By the look of it any old metal is actually used to make the spoons and this is preferable to the locals digging up UXO’s and potentially blowing themselves up.  We could not resist buying a pair of peace doves to hang on our rucksacks.

The Russian Tank was a little bit of a disappointment mainly because there is not really much left of it other than its main body.  The sheer size of it was fascinating and I am sure it was once a monster of a machine, but it looked a little sad just perched on a random hillside with its lid 30 feet further down the hill.

It has been at least 3 days since we were subjected to Lao Lao, so where else to go than a Whiskey Village!  This was actually just a ladies house rather than a whiskey village, although I suspect that all the neighbours have Lao Lao breweries in their garden sheds.  We were shown the fermenting rice, the home made still, and the terrifying huge jars of Lao Lao just waiting to burn the throats of unsuspecting Farangs.  Enter unsuspecting Farangs!  As much as we tried to tell our driver we had already tried it there was no getting out of having a shot of the burning hot delight, in fact I took one for the team and Tim got out scott free. 

Next we went to the second site which is split into two areas, again lined with MAG markers for our peace of mind or to instil utter fear when you lost sight of them!  The bonus of taking a private tour and being in Laos at the end of the season meant that we pretty much had the Jar sites to ourselves, giving us ample time to look around at our own pace and play camera club.  We especially enjoyed having the sites to ourselves when we discovered that if we take panoramic photos and run between the pots we were in the pictures twenty odd times making the pots even more weird and eerie than they are.

At the final site number 1, there are the most amount of pots but as you can see the city it is not as remote as the other sites, but there are so many bomb craters it is terrifying.  There was also a huge cave we went and had a look inside and it seemed to be treated like a temple with lots and lots of cigarette offerings to the gods, the cave was stunning with two big holes in the ceiling which we figured were maybe bomb holes which had blown out the cave.  Having looked it up when we got back to our hotel it seems that the holes in the roof were man made and the cave was used as a crematorium! Hmm!

One of the best things about Phonsavan was that as it 1100 meters above sea level which meant that being up in the mountains the temperatures were considerably lower than elsewhere in Laos.  For the first time in months we actually stopped sweating and slept without air-conditioning on and felt a bit chilly which is odd as it was still 18 degrees and back in jersey I would have considered that a hot summers day and been sunbathing!

We were heading south from Phonsavan, but sadly there is no direct road and no public bus which goes that way so we had to go back to Vientiane to start our onward travels.  Rather than subjecting ourselves to a 15 hour bus back through Laos we treated ourselves to a flight.  The airport left quite a lot to be desired.  There were chickens wondering around the entrance and the man who checked us in actually prepared our tickets using a typewriter from circa 1965.  Thankfully the plane was significantly more impressive than the airport and 30 minutes later we were back in the rock and roll world of Vientiane.
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